We knew as we turned onto the street that our hostel was in a bad neighbourhood. And not just any bad neighbourhood –The Ghetto. In New Orleans. We looked at each other. We were four Canadian girls from cushy Canadian families with cushy Canadian jobs. We were here for Mardi Gras; a trip that for two of us, including myself, ended up being the last hurrah before marriage and family. It was the only time my sister, Heather, and I had travelled any distance with each other. We were up for an adventure. Heather and I shared a giggle – if Mom saw where we were staying, she’d faint.
Jo and Flo’s Candlelight Hostel was anything but. The “candlelight” consisted of two long burnt wax buds melted to the top of a ledge. The mattress on the bed my sister and I shared was so slanted we had to sleep backwards or blood would pool in our heads. But it was relatively clean, we had private rooms, it was cheap, and, most importantly, it was less than a 20-minute walk to Bourbon Street. We flung ourselves into the fantasy that is New Orleans at Mardi Gras. It is everything it promises to be – a grand mixture of culture, history and debauchery. I can truly say that after spending time people watching in the French Quarter, I have officially seen everything.
There is much more to Mardi Gras than the drunkenness and nudity that make the front pages. It is a conglomeration of the history of the city, its various cultures and groups known as “krewes”, who proudly display their differences in elaborate, breathtaking parades where members toss beads from floats into the thousands of waiting hands lining the street. I will, once and for all, debunk a myth. You DO NOT have to show your tits at Mardi Gras to get beads. If you WANT to, you are certainly encouraged to do so by the throbbing mobs of drunken frat boys. It isn’t necessary, though. I thought about it, and almost took part a couple of times. Then I considered the thousands of digital cameras and cell phones raised to capture every glimpse of nipple to be shared on American college networks and displayed on You Tube. The last thing I needed was my friends, my boss, or, horrifyingly, my father, to open up some email forward called “Girls Gone Wild at Mardi Gras” and see me drunkenly screaming and hoisting my shirt to reveal the girls for all to see. Sometimes technology can ruin all the fun.
One of the most obvious things about New Orleans at Mardi Gras 2005 was the marked contrasts of the city. Only a few blocks from the French Quarter and Garden District with some of the most expensive real estate in the south were a few of the poorest and most desperate housing projects in the United States. I spent several mornings walking around, back and forth from our hostel to the French Quarter and I noticed something. In the rich, elaborate neighbourhoods, the houses stood behind great, locked gates, shutters drawn and doors locked tight. You couldn’t see beneath the glorious surface. I couldn’t help pondering, and pardon the overused cliché, what happens behind those closed doors?
Surrounding Flo & Jo’s, only ten or twelve blocks away, was a completely different world. These people, surprisingly, didn’t lock their doors. People sat on the front steps and greeted me as I walked past. Children ran free on the streets and in and out of neighbours’ houses. These folks, it seemed, had nothing to hide – their standing in life was plain to see. Why lock it up? Everyone was the same. In a lot of ways I found myself more comfortable in the ghetto.
As we walked home one night from the craziness of the bars on Bourbon Street, a figure appeared silently from the shadows mere blocks from our accommodation. It was a woman frantically twitching and flailing her arms and walking erratically down the road. She was a crack addict coming down from her high; her body violently protesting the lack of chemicals causing her to itch and twitch and grimace. She started following us, slowly catching up. We walked faster.
“How y’all doin’?” she called out, surprisingly lucid.
“Um….fine,” we responded.
“Name’s Millie,” she said, her shoulders twitching. “You ain’t from ’round here. Where y’all from?”
“Canada,” my sister replied.
“Ci-an-i-da!” She yelled. “It’s cooooold up there.”
“Sometimes,” I said.
We reached the hostel, quickly slipping in, locking it behind us. We peeked out the curtain in the common room to catch Millie using the side view mirror of our rental car to groom herself, picking at her scalp like a frantic spider monkey at breeding season. As quickly as she appeared, she was gone, lost in the night.
A couple of days later, my sister had what can only be described as a premonition. After having lunch near the Mississippi, we walked up the stairs to look over the river. Heather, a geologist, appeared thoughtful and turned to me. “We just walked UP to the river,” she said. “There’s something, I don’t know, WRONG with that.” Six months later, I woke up to the inevitable. Hurricane Katrina had caused the levies to burst; New Orleans was under water.
My first thought was, oh my God, what happened to Millie? Did she get out? The reality is, probably not. She wouldn’t have been one that could have evacuated. She might not have even known what was happening. Over the next few days, I was consumed. I scanned footage of the Astrodome and Convention Center looking for her. I don’t even know what I was looking for. I probably wouldn’t have recognized her; it was dark and I was afraid to look her in the eye. At the time, I wanted her to be invisible, to disappear into the shadows, to pretend she didn’t exist.
Over my week at Mardi Gras, I met dozens of people. Some meetings were fleeting, like servers in restaurants, musicians and bartenders. Others lasted several days, like all friendships that begin and end while travelling. There were flirtations in bars, conversations, joke telling and one scary moment where a gentleman personally attacked me for Canada’s refusal to join the Iraq War. But, if asked, I couldn’t tell you their names. These people came in and out of my life leaving little impression on me, only adding to the blurred memories of that crazy week.
But I remember Millie. I will always remember Millie.